When a child excels in sports, they receive recognition through scholarships, letterman jackets, hero worship.
Children who excel in chess … tend to just excel in chess. And that’s something Detroiter Kevin Fite is hoping to change.
On May 17, the longtime coach of the Detroit City Chess Club will name the first All-City Chess Team, honoring the top youth players in the Detroit area. The event, albeit simple, seeks to honor the patience, concentration and effort these students from elementary through high school exhibit through their work and play. It will take place at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where they play from 4 to 8 p.m. each Friday.
These are not just kids who goof off after school. These are some of the best chess players in the country. They have won national championships, earned accolades across the state and changed the perception of chess within their schools, their communities, the city and beyond.
“These kids don’t get any recognition. They deserve this honor. They deserve their day,” Fite said. “They need to show people that it’s cool, being smart.”
When Fite started teaching chess to Detroit-area kids in 2002, there wasn’t much in the way of after-school programs that promoted educational activities. He knew all about the ones that promoted athletics. With his size and strength, Fite was a natural at sports. He graduated from Benedictine High School in 1985 and went straight to Southern University, where he planned on dominating the football program. Then came an injury. Afterward, Fite had leave school when he could no longer pay for his classes.
Then came an unusual meeting. Fite had been a fan of television newscaster Huel Perkins when he was on the air in Louisiana. As fate would have it, they both showed up in Michigan when Perkins joined Channel 2’s news team. Fite was working at a grocery store where Perkins shopped, and they got to chatting.
Those conversations led to a longtime friendship, and Perkins helped the young Fite get back into college through financial support. In return, Perkins made Fite agree to “pay it forward.” Shortly into his career as a teacher, Fite created the Detroit City Chess Club.
“I was a math teacher years ago at Duffield Elementary School, and I asked the kids if they would want to play chess,” Fite recalled. “No one was really interested, but two kids said they knew how and would try. So I got some sets from the gas station and set it up for us to play after school.
“I said, ‘If you want to come, then come.’ And they did,” Fite said. “The first kids got called nerds and geeks and some other names we won’t mention. I’m sure it was hard. But I acted like it was no big deal. When they yelled those names out, I didn’t even flinch.
“What really broke it was we got some basketball players and cheerleaders,” Fite says, laughing at the memory. “They didn’t just play – they got good. Some of them quit basketball and cheerleading and they were my best players. Before you knew it, the whole culture of the school changed. A new kid who transferred in was immediately asked, ‘Do you know how to play chess?’”
Fite said it’s pretty easy to get the boys involved – they’re competitive already and enjoy the challenge. Playing chess, Fite notes, is one part mental and one part physical. Some games, especially during tournaments, can last four hours. Play enough of those in one day, and you’re tapped.
But when it comes to the female of the species…some special recognition is needed. Drafting the girls to play is somewhat more difficult. They’ll play while in the elementary years, and they typically destroy their classmates. But as they enter middle school, about 90 percent tend to fall away. They don’t want to be seen as “too smart,” Fite said. By the time these young women are entering high school, they may not want to play chess at all if their friends mock it or don’t understand.
That is why Fite takes them on separate outings as a group – the girls might take in a Tigers baseball game to create a feeling of community. That way, if they need support to keep playing, they have each other to depend on.
Why go to all of this effort? Why try to understand that wily creature known as a teenage girl? Why bother with paying anything forward after all this time?
Because Fite has seen the transformations. He has coaxed kids out of their quiet worlds of disability, shyness, stage fright, anger. He has watched as little kids become big kids and beat him repeatedly at his own game. They master chess, and they master so much more.
They become self-confident, Fite said. Chess turns them onto what is right about their minds, their personalities. It breeds ego, and that’s ok.
“When a kid is confident, they’re going to want to go to school. They’re going to want to show you what they can do. They want to challenge you,” Fite said. “Everything else jumps off from that. … These skills carry into other subjects, into how they approach life.”
There are other benefits as well. They got speaking engagements across Metro Detroit. They got to travel like rock stars. Some didn’t know how to behave in a hotel room – now they are experts.
“It teaches you to be a gracious winner and a gracious loser. It teaches you to have that balance,” Fite said. “We had a kid that’s in college now, but it took him about two years to calm down and be able to lose. He was such a competitor he would carry on when he lost. Now, he’s the best speaker. He comes back to talk to the little kids.”
In a computer-driven age when chess games and competitions like spelling bees can seem old fashioned, Fite is fighting to keep chess relevant. To keep his kids interested. To find the like-minded adults – the chess masters – who will volunteer, mentor, teach and support this interest. Because these kids tend to become better chess players than Fite in short order. And he hates to turn a kid away. Hates it.
He’s not done paying it forward. There’s still so much to do.
“If you give them the opportunity, they will perform for you,” Fite said.